January 12, 2012

#6: Gone with the Wind

 There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South...

 The title of this one looms so large that the screen can't even contain it all at once. Max Steiner's score sweeps us away immediately and we're launched into Victor Fleming's 1939 southern saga Gone with the Wind, adapted from Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Winner of ten Academy Awards in what would be one of the greatest years in American cinema, Gone with the Wind remains to this day Hollywood's indisputable champion of melodrama and historical fiction. AND it's even fun to watch!

Company: not quite enough for a cotillion, but we made do -- Ryan and Paul, our most magnanimous hosts; Elizabeth, de Havifan (a fan of de Havilland); Kecia, swooning for Rhett; Bret, which rhymes with Rhett; and Hannah, a fair Southern belle.

Cuisine: we never went hungry again. Kecia made chicken, shrimp and andouille sausage gumbo with brown rice and black bean corn bread, and Paul made some delicious taco dip. Drinks were a-flowing.

So I guess I was mistaken all this time in believing that our last movie, Lawrence of Arabia, was the longest movie on the list, but Gone with the Wind beats it by eight minutes (twenty-two if you include the overture, entr'acte and exit music). However, due to the long stretches of inaction and sand, that last movie feels about twice as long as this one, which opens on our heroine giggling and flirting with two young soldiers and never lets up for a minute. Scarlett O'Hara (Oscar winner Vivien Leigh, winning her first of two Oscars playing Southern belles) has every boy's attention. Charming to a fault, we see immediately that she's vain and selfish. Once another girl is mentioned, we hear, "who want to know anything about her?" No one matters but Scarlett. Leigh plays her with great relish and incredible detail. I love knowing that one of the other main choices to play this role was Charlie Chaplin's wife at the time, Paulette Goddard, whose ambiguous marital status at the time was thought to be too tumultous and might bring controversy and scandal to filming. Leigh, though, was living with Lawrence Olivier at the time, as both of their spouses had refused to divorce them. C'mon!

Anyhow, anyhow. The story involves the long, involved, on-again-off-again romance between this plantation owner's daughter and the handsome Rhett Butler (Oscar nominee and dreamboat Clark Gable), who's been disowned by his family in South Carolina and breaks the mold by assuring his Confederate allies that they cannot win a ground war against the North (which history would validate). At nearly four hours, the film takes its sweet time and letting this romance fester, flounder and find its way, as Scarlett makes her way through life, husbands, war and tragedy.


William Cameron Menzies, the man who invented the job title "production designer," was awarded a technical Oscar "for outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood," and he and the art director and cinematographer certainly use color to enhance and dramatize every scene. How much less visually exciting would this huge charity bazaar be in black and white, especially considering that in this scene Scarlett's dressed in black, mourning her first husband, and is taunted by color everywhere?

 Can you find Waldo Scarlett?

When war ravages her town in the Atlanta Campaign, Scarlett is obligated to stay behind and fulfill her promise to her beloved Ashley (Leslie Howard) that she take care of his pregnant wife and her dearest friend Melanie (a wonderful Olivia de Havilland). She's out of her mourning attire, but her world is suddenly drained of color as she wanders through the seemingly jaundiced expanse of wounded soldiers, searching for a doctor to help her. God knows Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) won't be much if any help. ("I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!") In this way, Fleming helps us to see Scarlett's world through her eyes, matching the visual palette to the colorful emotional landscape of the novel.

"As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!"

I mean, GOD. How much burnt orange is there in this film? This iconic image of Scarlett standing on the near-ruins of her family's beloved plantation Tara sets up parallel storylines as the south is defeated and the age of Reconstruction begins, both for the deeply divided nation and the flawed but admittedly resourceful and resilient Ms. O'Hara. She quickly puts her remaining family and newly-freed slaves (nothing much is said about them, more on that later) to work picking cotton on her farm and struggling to get by.

The second half of this epic story begins with Scarlett at her lowest low point, and observes her as she connives, lies and cheats her way into a place of wealth and power in the lives of the men she doesn't love and the women she betrays. Nearly everyone sees her for the deceitful bitch she is, save maybe her second husband Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye) whose untimely death leaves the door open for Rhett to finally propose, and dear sweet Melanie, the only kind and virtuous person in the whole movie (save maybe Mammy, played by the inspiring Hattie McDaniel).

There's been a lot of criticism about the film's depiction of black slaves, particularly their supposed congeniality and eagerness to fight for their country. The film premiered nearly seventy-five years after slavery was abolished, so it was nearly out of the contemporary mindset of the time, but Jim Crow laws still ruled the south and true civil rights wouldn't be won for another couple decades. It's such a sting to hear that although McDaniel was rightfully awarded the Best Supporting Actress prize for this film, her statue was a statuette, in a way counting her as 3/5 of a actress. Her performance has stood the test of time, as complete as she could make it. It's a historical character, one way out of date, and she's not really given much chance to do anything besides be a stereotype, but her commanding presence leads the way through the film, and we have Hattie to thank.

The film's psychological torture games between Scarlett and Rhett feel as contemporary and electric as any written today, thanks to the winning screenplay by Sidney Howard. I have a feeling I should really read this book. I love the similarities between these scenes and the fights that Leigh has with Marlon Brando twelve years later in A Streetcar Named Desire. I think we know it will never work out, that Scarlett is too selfish and too conniving to know any other way to act, any other way to treat fellow human beings, and even when the ultimate tragedy strikes and she's finally changed, it's all been for naught. It's too late. He doesn't give a damn. Do we relish in watching her suffer? Do we love the schaudenfreude? Or do we want Rhett and Scarlett to be together forever? Is tomorrow another day? We want a happy ending... don't we?

No matter what, I think audiences can agree that Scarlett O'Hara gets the blood boiling, and her epic journey through love and war is one that hasn't yet been matched. Boy. I had only seen this once before in college, and it was nice to see it again, knowing who everyone was, knowing how it would all end, and taking that into context. I recently heard a study on NPR that said people actually enjoying reading books when they know the ending, since some of the anxiety is gone and one can pick up on foreshadowing details that would otherwise be missed. That's a good a reason as any I can think of to rewatch a lot of these movies once I'm done with this list. Gone with the Wind might have to wait a while, but I'll definitely come back to it... sometime when I have four hours to spare... and some more of that gumbo.

Only five left! I can't believe it. How can you argue against any of them? Next up: the only lightness anywhere to be found until the end, it seems. Gene Kelly is soaked while he's Singin' in the Rain.

January 5, 2012

#7: Lawrence of Arabia

We finally got to this, the last film on the list I haven't previously seen! It's shameful and strange but maybe the only real thing I knew about David Lean's 1962 sandy epic Lawrence of Arabia was that it's long. In fact, I remember a Foxtrot strip (remember that strip?) in which the kid is on the couch and the dad walks over with a chess board.

Dad: Hey Jason, wanna play chess?
Jason: I can't, Dad. I just started watching Lawrence of Arabia.
Dad: That's okay. I'll wait.

That was really it. The movie's length is the whole joke. And in a way, that's okay: it's definitely a major investment, so luckily I had delicious food and camaraderie.
Company: Elizabeth, former and future lover of Omar Sharif, owner of burlap-encased copy of this movie, opponent of saffron


Cuisine: quinoa with Moroccan winter squash and carrot stew. This required several spices I didn't own (turmeric? Hungarian sweet paprika??) and it was certainly a two-hander (I was on the quinoa, Elizabeth was on the stew). So delicious, and theme-perfect! Special note: don't worry about the saffron, it's just a fancy expensive way to add color to this already colorful plate. Also, plenty of coffee to get through the three-and-a-half-hour beast, and maybe the dregs of a bag of Christmas confections.

The film is based on the life of T. E. Lawrence (played here by Peter O'Toole, achieving his first of eight Oscar nominations), an officer in the British Army at the early part of the twentieth century who was sent into Arabia on special assignment and became a liaison for the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks between 1916 and 1918. Is this something that I knew anything about prior to watching the movie? Absolutely not. But about fifteen minutes in Peter blows out the flame in his hand and we are immediately transported to ...

... the desert. Hot. Desolate. Sprawling. Lawrence and his guide are in unfamiliar territory and the guide makes the mistake of drinking from a well that doesn't belong to him. Right on cue: here comes Sherif Ali (Oscar nominee Omar Sharif) to shoot him for his insolence. That'll teach him. And he would shoot Lawrence too, but Lawrence makes a case for himself and asks to be led to Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the leader of the Arab revolt.

Faisal has been pressured to retreat but Lawrence proposes a surprise attack on the important coastal town of Aqaba. Attacking from sea would almost certainly be expected and lead them to certain death, so Lawrence proposes attacking from the rear, which would require crossing the vast Nefud desert, considered by everyone but Lawrence to be impassable. Ali is very skeptical but a group of fifty men follow Lawrence into the desert.

Long stretches of the movie look like this.

In this cinematic world, crossing a desert on camelback is pretty much considered an action sequence. And it's a loooong action sequence. Lean is obviously keeping his audience on a camel's back with Lawrence and his troupe, asking us to journey for weeks without rest until we reach the oasis on the other side. It's not that it's not entertaining, although it really isn't, but we know the stakes are high and that keeps (some of) us engaged.

The group successfully reaches the end of their journey but Lawrence wins even more respect from his allies when, noticing that one camel has lost its passenger, he heads back into the desert to retrieve his fallen comrade, something that most would consider a suicide mission. He is crowned, hailed as a savior.


He's given traditional Arab robes to wear, and he pulls them off. (Fun fact: Noel Coward said that if Peter O'Toole had been any prettier in this movie, they would have had to call it Florence of Arabia. Catty!)

Lawrence is painted in the film as egotistical, and Lean alludes to Christ comparisons when he's hailed by his Arab allies. Not that he didn't do a lot of great things, but boy, he loves being loved. He was well-educated and was very familiar with Arab and Bedouin culture, and even tells his guide near the beginning of his journey that he's "different" than the other people in his home county of Oxfordshire. O'Toole plays him with great immediacy and wisdom. Two of my favorites quotes of his say a lot about his character: near the beginning of the film before he heads into the desert, he puts out a match with his fingers, and a friend tries to do the same.

William Potter: Ooh, that damn well hurts.
T. E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
William Potter: Well, what's the trick then?
T. E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

I love this mind-over-matter philosophy; certainly it must come in handy when crossing inhospitable terrains like he will do for the next several hours.

Oops quicksand.

The other comes when Gasim, the man Lawrence saved from the desert, kills one of Faisal's men over a dispute, and Faisal notes that he must be put to death to quell tensions between the tribes.

Prince Faisal: Gasim's time has come, Lawrence. It is written.
T.E. Lawrence: Nothing is written

Sure, you could read this arrogance and perhaps even cultural or moral superiority, but Lawrence is making the point that nothing is predestined. It is not "written," for example, that they should all perish by attempting to cross the Nefud (which none of them do). Extraordinary things happen when people have faith that they can happen. A sweet, simple lesson.

The film was awarded seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, as well as many deserved technical awards for cinematography, art direction, and the sweeping score by Maurice Jarre, who creates one of those themes that stays with you long after the movie's over. It reminded me of Taxi Driver, the way the theme was used so often, almost to a fault, to drill it so far into your brain that it would always bring you right back into the world of the film. Peter O'Toole lost his first of eight Oscars to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird, and I think that history has validated that. But poor poor Peter.

"He's the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey."

One thing I will say, though, is that this film ranks maybe right behind The Bridge on the River Kwai as the least American film on this list that claims to be made up of American films. I believe the producer Sam Spiegel and the screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson are all American, but outside of that, there's nothing much American about it. It's a British story, directed by an Englishman, filmed in the middle East, with a British and Arabian cast and almost certainly financed outside of America. It doesn't make it a bad inclusion on a list of great movies, but great American movies? I'd like to see some justification for this. Anyone?

ANYhow. The film follows Lawrence's fall from grace, his exploits in helping the rebellion, and his emotional journey, torn between his British imperialist roots and his new Arab comrades. Heavy, sandy stuff.

Ultimately it's a worthwhile experience and I think one that might benefit from multiple viewings if you can stomach it. It's a lot of names to keep straight, a lot of guys in dusty robes, a lot of strife. It's not my favorite story but I think if you view it as a biography of a major political figure, the ending becomes pretty remarkable. I'll need to watch this again in a few years. I have a feeling this was just a primer. Elizabeth, you in? We'll make that stew again! :)

Next up: we're making gumbo and setting fire to Atlanta! We'll never go hungry again with Gone with the Wind.